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Darwinists Devolve: Review by Swamidass, Lenski, and Lents Borders on Fraud

Photo: Joshua Swamidass, by J. Nathan Matias, via Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s note: We have been responding to a review in Science of Michael Behe’s forthcoming book, Darwin Devolves. Other replies so far — with more to come! — include:

Joshua Swamidass, Richard Lenski, and Nathan Lents have published a review in the journal Science critiquing biochemist Michael Behe’s forthcoming book Darwin Devolves. I found their review utterly convincing — although probably not in the way they might hope.

Some background: When I became involved in the intelligent design (ID) movement more than two decades ago, a key reason was because I was intrigued by the scientists who thought they were finding discernible evidence throughout nature of intelligent design. I didn’t know whether these scientists were correct. But I definitely wanted them to have the freedom to articulate their views in the public square without retribution. And I wanted to see how the debate played out.

Learning from ID’s Critics

In the ensuing years, I learned a lot more about the scientific arguments for and against intelligent design, leading me to conclude that the arguments for ID are pretty strong. I came to this conclusion partly because of my interactions with the leading proponents of intelligent design. But there was another reason: What I discovered reading and interacting with ID’s critics. I’m grateful to scientists like Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, and a host of others who have critiqued and denounced ID over the years. I’m grateful to them for showing me just how convincing the case for ID really is. Reading their writings, I came across nearly endless examples of  question begging, ad hominem attacks, and hand-waving. What I didn’t find were serious refutations. In my experience, the critiques offered of ID were so uniformly bad that it began to dawn on me that the scientists who supported ID must be right. If even ID’s harshest critics couldn’t come up with serious criticisms, I concluded that the case made by Behe, Dembski, Meyer, et al. must be sound after all.

Which brings me to this new review by Swamidass, Lenski, and Lents of Mike Behe’s upcoming book. 

On the one hand, the review is a cut above many garden variety critiques of intelligent design. For the most part, it refrains from making ad hominem attacks on Behe. It actually tries to focus on science. That may seem a small accomplishment. But considering how the debate over ID usually plays out, it is no mean feat. 

On the other hand, despite the review’s focus on science, it contains much of the same hand-waving that I’ve seen in other critiques of ID. I started out by saying I found the review utterly convincing. I did. I was convinced after reading it that Behe must be onto something in his new book, even though I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet. If this is all Behe’s critics can muster when given a platform at one of the world’s top science journals, Behe’s arguments must be powerful indeed. 

A Falsehood, and It’s a Whopper

I will leave it to Behe and others to give a detailed rejoinder to the various claims in the review. But as a layperson, I want to drive home one particular point: Much of the review is based on a falsehood, and it’s a whopper.

The main thrust of the review appears to be a claim that Behe ignores or hasn’t responded to contrary evidence raised by his scientific critics. The title of the review makes this point (“A biochemist’s crusade…ignores evidence”), and so does the review’s actual text. “Behe…ignores the fact that some of his prior arguments have been dismantled,” the authors assert, followed by the citation of numerous supposed examples. 

Things go downhill from there.

The authors first claim that Behe “fails to mention Kenneth Miller’s simple, elegant scheme” for the “stepwise evolution” of the blood-clotting cascade, clearly leaving the impression that Behe hasn’t responded to Miller anywhere, not just in his new book. The authors’ footnote at this point cites an unnamed chapter where Miller critiques Behe in Philosophy of Biology: An Anthology. If you go to the Table of Contents for that book, you will see that Miller’s contribution is titled “The Flagellum Unspun.” But if you look right above Miller’s chapter, you will see another chapter by — you guessed it — Michael Behe! And if you actually bother to read Behe’s chapter (“Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution”), you will quickly see that Behe responded to Miller (and other critics) in the very same book Swamidass and company cite in their footnote. Of course, Behe has responded to Miller — and other critics — in many additional articles as well. (See here and here and here.) 

Sloppy and Unprofessional

Perhaps Swamidass and company didn’t find Behe’s responses to Miller convincing. But to fail to acknowledge that he has actually responded to Miller borders on academic fraud. I will give the authors here the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Swamidass and company didn’t bother to look at the book they cited to claim that Behe ignores Miller’s critique. In that case, their falsehood wouldn’t be intentional. It would just be sloppy and unprofessional. Either way, their failure to acknowledge that Behe has responded to Miller doesn’t reflect well on them.

Let’s take another example where Swamidass and his co-authors claim that Behe hasn’t responded to his critics. They cite an article by Durrett and Schmidt which they say shows Behe’s “calculations have already been refuted.” 

But here again, Behe has responded extensively to Durrett and Schmidt. He even demonstrated that Durrett and Schmidt made a calculation error, which “introduce[d] a 30-fold underestimate of the waiting time” in their estimate, an error Durrett and Schmidt later conceded. Again, perhaps Swamidass and his co-authors aren’t convinced by Behe’s responses to Durrett and Schmidt. But remember that the larger point Swamidass and company are trying to make is that these are examples where Behe has ignored evidence that goes against his views. To fail to acknowledge that Behe has in fact responded on these points is indefensible.

A Third Example

Let’s take a third example. Swamidass and his co-authors state that “a 2014 study, unmentioned by Behe, reported discovery of two genetic paths through which malaria has evolved chloroquine resistance through multiple steps.” Here again, Behe has written extensively about this particular article, showing how it actually vindicates his thesis in his prior book, The Edge of Evolution.  (See here and here and here.)

Perhaps Swamidass and his co-authors will respond that Behe didn’t include these responses in his new book. I don’t know whether that’s true or not since I haven’t had a chance to read Behe’s forthcoming book. But the tenor of Swamidass and company’s claim is that Behe doesn’t respond to contrary evidence. They don’t say, “Behe has responded to this evidence, but we fault him because he didn’t reprint his responses yet again in this new book” — likely because they know that such an admission would make their overall claim look silly. If Behe didn’t rehash things he had already addressed elsewhere extensively, perhaps it was because this was a new book and he saw no reason to rehash what he’s already responded to before.

Looking Forward to a Robust Critique

Ironically, in this same review where the main point seems to be that Behe doesn’t engage with evidence counter to his views, the authors state (without appreciating the irony) that Behe devotes much of one chapter to discussing Richard Lenski’s bacterial evolution experiments.

Since Lenski is listed as a co-author of this book review, I was looking forward to reading a robust critique of what Behe had to say about his experiments. Get ready to be underwhelmed. Here’s the critique: “[Behe] dedicates the better part of chapter 7 to discussing a 65,000-generation Escherichia coli experiment, emphasizing the many mutations that arose that degraded function — an expected mode of adaptation to a simple laboratory environment, by the way — while dismissing improved functions and deriding one new one as a ‘sideshow.’” That’s it? Yes, that’s it. On the one topic where the authors surely might have provided a devastating critique of Behe — if they had one — they effectively offer nothing.

If scientists like Swamidass, Lenski, and Lents want to continue to offer these faux critiques of Behe, that is certainly their right. But they are damaging their own credibility, not Behe’s. Such critiques will no doubt continue to convince true believers like atheist Darwinist Jerry Coyne. But they won’t impress scientists who are open-minded enough to read Behe or other ID proponents for themselves. How do I know this? Because I’ve met such scientists. Scientists like German paleontologist Günter Bechly, who thought intelligent design was bosh… until he actually read Behe and discovered that the caricature of intelligent design he had been offered wasn’t true.

So a big shout out to the three authors of this review: Thank you for convincing me (again) that Behe must know what he’s talking about. And thank you for making me look forward to reading Behe’s new book when it actually comes out. 

For open-minded readers of this article, will you join me in reading Behe’s new book? If so, click here for a special pre-order offer just for you if you order Behe’s book before it comes out on February 26.

Photo: Joshua Swamidass, by J. Nathan Matias, via Flickr (cropped).